Although the serial killer is a ubiquitous presence in the pop cultural landscape, the roles that this terrifying figure is permitted play are relatively limited. Some murderers serve as an elemental force: the threat of a violent death in human form. This is the killer of the giallo and the slasher flick, an antagonist whose visceral effect on the reader or viewer is paramount. Raw menace rather than psychological texture characterizes such bogeymen, whose apotheosis is Halloween’s unstoppable villain, Michael Myers (dubbed only “The Shape” in the 1978 film’s credits).
At the other end of the spectrum, one encounters fictional predators whose fractured minds are a critical point of investigation. In this category are mid-century cinematic monsters such as Lou Ford (The Killer Inside Me), Norman Bates (Psycho), and Mark Lewis (Peeping Tom), as well as more recent fiends like Patrick Bateman (American Psycho). This self-aware stripe of killer invites rumination on enduring philosophical conundrums like the nature of the will and of good and evil. The genus of serial killer even has its own blackly absurd version of St. Augustine’s Confessions in the form of Dexter, an exhaustive and paradoxically humane exploration of ethics and the self.
And then there is Hannibal Lecter, the über-serial killer. Ever slippery, Dr. Lecter’s darkling appeal is not primarily that of a pitiless predator or disquieting case study. Although physically lethal and psychologically multifaceted, Hannibal’s most enduring quality is the distinctive manner in which his madness is expressed. He is a man of refinement: gracious, poised, brilliant, an aficionado of fine cuisine, wines, literature, and opera. He is also a murderer and a cannibal. Although concealed, Hannibal’s more unconventional tastes are essential aspects of his character. His genteel demeanor is no facade. The real Hannibal Lecter is both the cultured doctor and the cannibalistic fiend; the two are indivisible.
Hannibal is too precisely drawn to be a faceless monster, yet too inscrutable to serve as an instructive exemplar of his kind. Accordingly, the doctor’s progenitor, novelist Thomas Harris, prefers to utilize Hannibal as a narrative force, a chessboard queen whose very presence is disruptive. In Red Dragon, the doctor is an imprisoned spider, nudging others from afar for his own amusement. In The Silence of the Lambs, he is similarly manipulative, but also a perverse mentor, possessing secret knowledge that Clarice Starling must ferret out. Hannibal finds the titular doctor roaming free as a dragon in his own right, sought by those who would slay or capture him. The prequel Hannibal Rising, meanwhile, is the exception that proves rule: when Harris attempts to portray young Lecter as a sympathetic Byronic hero, the results prove lackluster. The filmmakers who have adapted Harris’ works have generally preserved Hannibal’s place in each story, although actors Brian Cox and Anthony Hopkins each provided a particular spin. Cox’s Hannibal is genial and almost off-handed, Hopkins’ more piercing and subtly bestial.
It is into this landscape that Bryan Fuller’s bold and absorbing series Hannibal descends. Updating characters first given life over three decades ago, Hannibal reimagines the relationship between the doctor and FBI investigator Will Graham prior to the events of Red Dragon. The series presents Will as mentally frazzled and socially awkward savant, cursed with an uncanny ability to empathize with murderers and thereby reconstruct their crimes. In the series pilot, Special-Agent-in-Charge Jack Crawford convinces a reluctant, semi-retired Will to return to the field. However, on the advice of Bureau consultant Dr. Alana Bloom, it is arranged for Will to partner with the esteemed psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter. The doctor serves as an informal therapist to Will, tasked to monitor the man’s increasingly disorganized and fissured mind. Hannibal, of course, is also secretly the serial killer dubbed the “Chesapeake Ripper,” devouring the organs of Baltimoreans who have offended him (or his aesthetic sensibilities).
On the surface, Hannibal follows familiar genre television patterns. Narratively, it most closely resembles a police procedural in the serial-killer-of-the-week vein, such as Millennium, Profiler, or Criminal Minds. The wrinkle, naturally, is that Hannibal is himself a cannibalistic killer, and is not above toying with Will’s investigations for his own purposes. Purely as a delivery device for nail-biting tension and ghoulish imagery, Hannibal is a success, one that benefits from being richly performed and uncommonly gorgeous. As Hannibal, Mads Mikkelsen is ruthlessly charming, giving no hint of the malevolent butcher within. His Dr. Lecter is less unnerving than prior incarnations. Debonair and witty, he is a figure of fearless style and sparkling intelligence. Will Graham could have been a mere collection of tics, but Hugh Dancy portrays him with sensitivity and depth. His interpretation of the man presents a pitiable hero who seems perpetually on the verge of collapse. The series’ striking production design and cinematography, meanwhile, are as essential as the performances. Using bold colors and compositions, the show creates divisions between safety and peril, and then gradually blurs those boundaries, establishing an air of disorientation and perversion.
One could marvel at length about the series’ formal merits or its cunning repurposing of characters and events from Harris’ novels. What makes Hannibal particularly compelling, however, is how methodically and richly the series develops its themes. Proximally, the show concerns the strange, irresistible relationship between Will and Hannibal, but this is but a means to more profound concerns. While it touches upon several subjects—violence, morality, the topography of the murderous mind—Hannibal is most fundamentally a portrait of fear. Ultimately, when the white-knuckle thrills and clotted gore are peeled away, what remains is a harrowing depiction of the way that dread dominates human behavior and relationships. This desolate thematic core, more than anything else, is what distinguishes Hannibal not only from other television dramas and serial killer tales, but from previous versions of Dr. Lecter’s saga.
Fear runs through every aspect of Hannibal, but most conspicuously through Will, who is a walking snarl of live-wire anxieties and clammy panic. The ominous, feathered stag that haunts Will’s dreams throughout Season One serves as a potent totem, embodying both his strange talents and all the misery that flows from them. The series’ other recurring characters are likewise shaped to a great extent by their fears. Crawford is unsettled by the growing wedge of silence in his marriage, and by the possibility that he will repeat past lapses in judgment. Dr. Bloom is fearful for Will’s mental well-being, but is also wary of his fumbling romantic intentions. Even Hannibal, so walled-off in the novels and films, lets his confident demeanor slip in front of his own psychiatrist, hinting at the anxieties that coil within his reptilian heart. Terrors both real and imagined also plague the show’s gallery of killers: one murderer fears expiring in his sleep, while another is convinced that everyone around her is an evil imposter.
Although Hannibal presents outrageously baroque murders—one killer turns a victim’s remains into a macabre cello—most of the fears it explores are remarkably relatable. The show unsettles not because of its blood and viscera, but because the terrors that hang so heavily on it are mundane: isolation, rejection, failure, disease, and death. Notwithstanding grotesqueries like an obelisk of rotting corpses, Season One’s most terrifying image is a scrambled drawing of a clock, sketched by Will at Hannibal’s request. When the doctor conceals this and subsequent evidence of the encephalitis that is boiling Will’s brain, a seismic shift in the series occurs. Hannibal is no longer “merely” a murderous monster: he is now a doctor who is withholding critical information from his patient. (And who hasn’t secretly feared such malpractice at one time or another?) This moment emphatically illustrates that Hannibal is not truly a show about serial killers, but about the universal anxieties that attend the contemporary human experience. With the arrival of Season Two imminent, the question that lingers is whether fear (his own and others’) has doomed Will Graham to an inescapable fate.